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It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16. Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire. In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

Belushi TogaThe city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride. Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.” Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance. To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783). In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians. In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα). In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel. The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.” You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.” I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior. The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed). That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography: Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009): 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.

After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.”  Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed.

Upside DownFirst, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.”  Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”

Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult.  If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty.  It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.

Third, they advocate another king, Jesus.  In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example).  This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).

Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed.  Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live.  Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.

All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective.  After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective.  But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective.  Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome.  This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.

All this leads me to wonder how we can present this “radical” the Gospel to the world today. Does the message of the Grace of God really appear to be “turning the world upside down”?

The issue of the “quiet life” may be the big issue that Paul has to deal with in the letter.  It comes up again in 5:13-14 and in 2 Thess 3.  In general, it appears that the some in the church believed (rightly so) that the Lord was to return very soon.  If the Lord was to come very soon, why not stop working and live off the generosity of the church until the Rapture.  Perhaps they were doing this to devote themselves to the ministry, but that is not at all clear in this passage.  It is possible some saw the soon-return of Christ as an opportunity to not work.

Quiet LifePaul says that the “quiet life” is to be an ambition.  This is something of a paradox, since the phrase might be translated “study to be quiet,” or “be ambitious about being unambitious.”  The first century Jewish philosopher Philo said the quiet life was the goal of the righteous.  “…while those who pay due honor to excellence cultivate a tranquil, and quiet, and stable, and peaceful life” (Philo, On Abraham, 27).

Paul reflects this thinking by saying that the goal of the Christian should be to lead a quiet, peaceful, tranquil life.  What Paul means is that we should strive for the following attributes, that we should seek a peaceful life without conflict with our community.  It is not enough to print “quiet life” in t-shirts and to trumpet as a slogan, one has to (ironically) be diligent at pursuing a quiet life!

Paul describes the “quiet life” in several ways.  First, he tells his readers to “mind your own business.”  Paul’s exhortation here is that the believers should not go out into their town telling everybody how to live their lives.  This is very practical advice, considering the church was under persecution from the civil authorities as well as the Jews.  By “laying low” and minding their business, they avoided an increase of persecution.

Second, Paul tells his readers to “work with your hands” (Be diligent!)  Of the three, this one sounds the most Amish, working with your hands is in contrast to the traveling “teachers” of the ancient world that lived off of a few rich patrons, and wandered around producing nothing of value.  In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, manual labor was somewhat to be looked-down upon.  If you were a person of substance, you had “people” who did that sort of work for you.  (The Jews valued hard work, Paul is probably reflecting that sort of thinking; eventually it becomes the Judeo-Christian work ethic.)

Third, Paul says that the Christian is to “be dependent on no one.”   If one is self-sufficient, no one can charge you with impure motives.   If the church was thinking that the Rapture was coming very soon, they might very well have had many people that wanted to avoid work and live off the church, perhaps devoting themselves to prayer and ministry. The problem was that if too many people did this, no one would be supported since no one was actually producing anything like food and shelter.   Paul’s argument is that if you are self-sufficient, no one can accuse you of having impure motives (as they had Paul.)  Don’t be like the world, looking for the cheap way out, work hard and be independent so that you do not look like the world!

Why lead a quiet life?  The “quiet life” will earn the respect of outsiders (v.12).   This is the justification for living the quiet diligent life, those outside of the church will see and hear, and they will respect the church for the way that they live their lives. This does not guarantee that they will be rushing into the church to join up, but it is the initial step, someone realizing that the church is actually doing what they say, and that the people in the church are really living a satisfied life rather than bickering among themselves like spoiled children.

Christianity ought to impact the lives of those that claim to be Christians in such a way that they in turn impact their culture and community in a positive way.   The question is not whether we will impact our culture and community, that is a given.  The issue is whether that will be a positive or a negative influence.

How could this vision of a “quiet life” transform how we do ministry in America?

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Second, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament. The argument is that a primarily Gentile church would not be expected to respond to biblical quotations or subtle allusions to the Hebrew Bible.

If the church is primarily Gentile, where did they come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols.”  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person. The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

Roma Coin

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically, imperial Roman cult. Oakes makes this point, “Christian failure to honour the gods would have included central Roman deities such as Jupiter, but also the deified Caesars” (p. 309).  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at least an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

Was there an Imperial Cult center at Thessalonica? Peter Oakes points out that no remains of an imperial cult site have been found at Thessalonica because very little of ancient Thessalonica has been excavated. But the city was a provincial capital, and the presence of an imperial cult can be seen in early coinage that called Caesar God (p. 308). Even if there was no cult temple, the city of Thessalonica was thoroughly Roman.

Luke reported the charges against Paul as “preaching another king besides Caesar.” If the church continued preaching Paul’s gospel, then the Gentile converts would have certainly found themselves in a difficult political and social position.
Bibliography: Peter Oakes, “Remapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” JSNT 27 (2005): 301-22.

The SystemPaul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most fruitful for studying Paul’s “anti-imperial” comments.  Lynn Cohick offers three reasons why Philippians fertile ground for Empire studies (Jesus is Lord, 169).  First, inscriptional evidence indicates that the imperial cult was present in first century Philippi.  Second, there is a great deal of citizenship language in Philippians as well as the usual “Jesus is Lord.” Third, there are studies on Philippians that describe Paul as “colonialist and imperialist” (Joseph Marchal) as well as those who see Paul as critiquing the Empire (N. T. Wright).

It is not insignificant that Philippians is the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave (2:6) and the only letter in which Paul describes himself only as a slave (1:1; Rom 1:1 has both slave and apostle). This is obscured in most modern translations, the NIV 2011, for example, uses “servant” in both cases. Christians are so used to the language of servanthood that we miss this culturally disruptive language. In Joe Hellerman’s recent Embracing Shared Ministry (Kregel, 2013) he points out that social status was the dominant factor in determining honor and shame in the first century. Since Paul is a Roman Citizen, he has a level of honor that came with certain privileges and expectations. Yet he does not identify himself as a citizen of Rome, but rather a slave of Jesus Christ. Rather than a citizen of Rome, he is a citizen of Heaven and equal in status with all the other citizens of Heaven (3:20).

It is even possible to read Philippians 2:2-6 as saying something like, “Jesus set aside his imperial status symbols and became a slave.” In the Roman world, one’s status was usually clearly evident at all times by how you dressed.  A member of the most elite of the Roman class dressed in a way that intentionally drew attention to their class. For an elite Roman citizen to remove their toga, for example, and but on the rags of a slave, was unthinkable.

But is Philippians intentionally anti-imperial?  Cohick is not convinced by most of the post-colonial or post-feminist readings of Philippians (p. 171), but does think that there may be a kind of implicit anti-imperialism in the letter that is a part of the typical Jewish and Christian critique of oppressive actions in general. Cohick concludes that if Paul is anti-imperial, it is part of his Jewish context.  Certainly there is a challenge to the power of Rome, but that is not very different than any Jew living in the middle of the first century.

It is possible that a Roman Citizen might hear Paul’s words as attacks on the social structure of the Empire. For a citizen to identify themselves as a slave might be dishonoring, but for a person in the Roman world to claim to be a citizen of a superior kingdom is an affront to Roman superiority. While Paul might not have intended a direct attack on Rome in the letter to the Philippians, the social structure of early Christianity was so different from Rome that it could not help but be interpreted as an offense to the Roman worldview.

To me, this is the major challenge of reading Paul’s letters with an anti-imperial method. Whatever Paul said, he was understood as challenging the social order in a way that could be described as “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:6).  Honestly, does Christianity really challenge contemporary American culture? A recent church plant in my area sent a flyer to my home inviting me to their first service, promising me that I would not be judged; there was no dress code, etc. That particular church was challenging a social order, but it was the established church that was wrong, not the pagan world. The flyer looked like an invitation to a new micro-brewery – come join us at the pub for some judgment-free good times. I am no fan of the old line denominations, but perhaps the pub culture is not good either.

Is the American church missing the radical nature of the gospel by attacking established churches?

It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16.  Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire.  In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

TogaPartyThe city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride.  Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.”  Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance.  To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783).  In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians.  In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα).  In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel.  The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.”  You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.”  I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior.  The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed).  That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography:  Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009): 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.

After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.”  Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed. 

Augustus-Caesar-StatueFirst, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.” C Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”

Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult.  If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty.  It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.

Third, they advocate another king, Jesus.  In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example).  This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).

Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed.  Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live.  Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.

All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective.  After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective.  But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective.  Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome.  This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.

This summer I reviewed a collection of essays edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2013). (Click here for part one of that review, click here for part two.) The book is an introduction “anti-imperial” or “Empire Criticism” approaches to the New Testament from a decidedly Evangelical perspective. These sorts of approaches have been around for a number of years, Evangelicals have been slow to interact with them.  This volume of essays is a first step toward bringing some of the value of studying Empire to a more conservative audience.

GWB as AntiChristAs McKnight and Modica comment in their introduction, one of the problems with some of the work done on anti-imperial rhetoric ends up sounding “too much like one’s personal, progressive, left-wing, Neo-Marxist, or whatever, politics” (p. 19).  This sounds something like the standard criticism of the nineteenth century “lives of Jesus” movement; all of those studies turned Jesus into a nineteenth century Protestant German liberal. McKnight admits that Empire studies grew in popularity during the Bush administration and many were not-so-veiled attempts to criticize growing fears of an “American Empire.”

But I could see how an ultra-conservative reader of this book in 2013 could easily import their own fears of “big government” demanding complete loyalty. With the recent health care debate and current government shut-down, it would be easy for either side of the political debate to latch on to these sorts of anti-imperial observations in the Pauline letters and hear them as applying to the current administration or congress (depending on your political leanings). Anti-Imperialism is not just for Marxists anymore.

Over the next few posts I want to interact with two Pauline texts using the interpretive lens of anti-Imperialism.  First, I want to look at the charges made against Paul in Thessalonica (Acts 17). Why is Paul charged with “defying Caesar’s decrees” as he preaches the gospel? Does 1 Thessalonians offer any support to understanding Paul as Anti-Rome?

Second, I will look briefly at the letter to the Philippians, the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave, and the only letter in which Paul describes himself as a slave. Is the citizenship language of Philippians intentionally “anti-Imperial”? Lynn Cohick contributed on Philippians in the McKnight and Modica collection, her comments are instructive. But there are a number of recent (evangelical) studies that might be used to read Philippians as a politically radical letter in the Roman world.

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Christian Theology

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